Leading article: End these poisonous exports

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The 1,400 tonnes of toxic waste which Britain has been caught trying to dump in Brazil is only the tip of a very unpleasant rubbish heap. The Environment Agency yesterday announced that the UK will pay for the return of 89 shipping containers of waste – including used syringes, condoms, nappies, bags of blood, soiled bandages, seats from chemical toilets, defunct electronic equipment and car batteries – which have been festering and producing larvae in three Brazilian ports for the past three months. But there remains a huge amount of British waste which has been dumped on Third World countries lying undetected elsewhere.

Last month, a Ministry of Defence computer turned up on a rubbish dump in Ghana where children as young as five extract scrap metal from electrical items, exposing themselves to potentially lethal chemicals. It was only one of hundreds of thousands of discarded items which are transported illegally to Africa in flagrant breach of our obligation to ensure its rapidly growing mountain of dead electronic gadgets is disposed of safely. Dumps in Nigeria and Ghana receive up to 15 shipping containers of discarded electronics from Europe and Asia every day.

Their export is a scam. It is legal to send functioning electronic equipment. But under cover of that trade, massive quantities of useless stuff is sent too – in violation of rules that prohibit broken electronic goods from being sent outside the EU. Of the 100,000 computers that enter the port of Lagos every month three-quarters are irreparable. Britain is responsible for about 15 per cent of EU waste, with most of us throwing away four pieces of what is called "e-waste" every year.

The biggest lawsuit ever launched in Britain has just been lodged by more than 30,000 people from Ivory Coast who claim they have been poisoned by metals leaking from the dumps into the water table. Among the guilty chemicals are antimony oxide, beryllium, cadmium, lead and phthalates. Many argue that the rise of piracy in Somalia has been partly caused by the death of the local fishing industry because of toxic-waste dumping.

The root of this obscene trade lies in the fact that it costs only $2.50 a tonne to dump toxic waste in Africa compared to $250 a tonne to dump waste in Europe. As a result, less than half of the electrical items thrown away last year were disposed of in accordance with EU rules. Organised crime has moved into the trade and made a nonsense of the stringent export checks Britain is supposed to have in place. And lax security, poor management and corruption in Third World ports make it easy for the criminals.

The British Government yesterday talked about tightening up on the rules. But that is not enough. Prosecutions and prison sentences must follow.